Half-term report card
The military has started 2017 with a fresh slate on several fronts. The Army and the Air Force both have new Chiefs, an opportunity for fresh ideas and approaches. There is hope that the military could soon get its first Tri-service commander, creating badly needed synergy between the Army, Navy and Air Force. Across the border, Pakistan too has a new Army Chief, who seems less inclined to grandstand, and appears to understand that tensions with India distract his military from more urgent priorities. Looking further out, as a new US President, Donald Trump, outlines his policies towards Russia and China, New Delhi will have to tack to new headwinds from that Great Power triangle.
The BJP manifesto had promised specific measures to strengthen external defence. The important ones included: (a) Reforming defence equipment procurement, support services and organisational functioning; (b) Modernising the armed forces by fast-tracking defence procurement; and increasing research and development spending to develop indigenous technologies; ( c) Addressing manpower shortages ( which actually exist only at the officer level), including by making Short Service Commission more attractive; (d) Ensuring the military plays a larger role in defence ministry decision making; (e) Dealing firmly with cross-border terrorism, including by improved border management; (f) Improving military justice, by reforming Armed Forces Tribunals (AFTs) and minimising government appeals against adverse court verdicts.
The long-delayed Defence Procurement Policy of 2016 (DPP-2016) has some innovation, such as the preferential procurement category of ‘Indian Designed, Developed and Manufactured’, which would distinguish truly ‘Made in India’ equipment from kit that actually has a foreign address to its intellectual property. Yet, DPP-2016 is by no means the crisp, result- oriented handbook that Parrikar wanted to liberate procurement from cumbersome, dead-end procedure. Instead DPP-2016, like its predecessors from 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013, remains a weightlifter’s tool and a bureaucrat’s delight, filled with opportunities for delaying the acquisition of vitally needed equipment.
Instead of ramming through change like the go-getter he is, Parrikar has tied his own hands by placing reform at the mercy of numerous committees. First, the Dhirendra Singh Committee, headed by a former government secretary, produced a 264-page report on defence procurement reform, including Mr Modi’s slogan-of-the-moment, ‘Make in India’. Then, to implement the Committee’s central recommendation on nominating private sector ‘Strategic Partners’ (SPs), who would be the automatic, go-to manufacturers in their various fields (aircraft, helicopters, warships, armoured vehicles, etc), the VK Aatre Task Force was set up. To this day, not a single SP has been created, even as foreign aerospace vendors like Boeing and Saab wait bewildered, wondering when they will know which Indian company would be nominated as SP for manufacturing aircraft in India. Instead, every project goes through a complex tendering process that inevitably means indefinite delay.